The Frequently Ignored Productivity Benefits of Walking

The benefits of walking go beyond well-documented physical health benefits. Research now identifies benefits for creativity, cognition, and productivity.

Spend too much time following self-declared “hustlers” in life, and you’ll be left with the impression that your time devoted to rest is time wasted. You must have a side hustle, they’ll tell you. If you’re not “hustling”, you’re extending the agony in your 9-5 cubicle. You need to put in the hours now to get back the hours later.

For the avoidance of doubt, there is a clear and precise definition for this narrative: bullshit.

Higher and better output is not necessarily a corollary of higher input. It’s well-documented that when we throw more hours at a problem, we often experience diminishing marginal returns on our time investment. But perhaps more importantly, there is a frequently ignored opportunity cost: the benefits of the quality leisure and rest that we’re foregoing.

To illustrate this point, take an activity that we and our ancestors have engaged in for several millions of years: walking. I’ve chosen this activity not just because of its well-documented benefits, but because our modern lifestyles are at odds with it. Our day jobs (and most of the hustling suggested outside of them) primarily leave us sat on our backsides.

The benefits of walking, it turns out, extend way beyond a mere health boost. Some of the most influential thinkers in recorded history have sworn by the creative and productive power of a walk in the outdoors. For Aristotle, Albert Einstein, Friedrich Nietzche, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau – to name a few – walking was an inextricable part of the thinking routine. Walking functioned symbiotically with work.

These anecdotal benefits have in recent years moved into the hard realm of scientific research, with a mounting list of studies now backing the idea that walking can enhance productivity and creativity.

The Physical Health Benefits of Walking

But before we explore these benefits, we should first recap the health benefits. These, after all, offer up some clues about the subsequent impacts on productivity and creativity.

Most of the physical health benefits of walking won’t surprise you. Walking shares many of its benefits with other forms of exercise. Improved cardiovascular fitness, increased muscular strength and endurance, improved stamina, reduced body fat, and better management of associated conditions are all linked with putting one foot in front of the other.

But there are also some benefits that may surprise in their magnitude. One study compared the health benefits of running and walking after the same level of total energy expenditure. Moderate walking produced equal benefits to vigorous running, with both showing similar risk reductions for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

You may not get to walk on a beach on your lunch break, but you’ll still get a bumper list of benefits!

The Productivity Benefits of Walking

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

Friedrich Nietzche

On top of all these health benefits, it turns out Aristotle, Einstein, Nietzche and many others were onto something. Research is beginning to demonstrate that regular walking impacts our brains in ways that increase creativity, cognition and mental wellbeing.

#1: Creativity and divergent thinking

In 2014, two Stanford University researchers published some remarkable findings. In four different experiments, the researchers had participants walk outdoors, walk on treadmills, remain seated inside, and be taken for a walk outside in a wheelchair. They then tested participants levels of creativity via a series of tests of divergent thinking and creative analogy generation.

The results identified a clear link between walking and higher performance on the tests. In fact, compared to sitting, walking increased participants’ creative output by around 60 percent.

Importantly, the outdoors didn’t appear to be a prerequisite for this higher performance. Walking – both outdoors and indoors on a treadmill – consistently outperformed the seated conditions inside and outside in a wheelchair.

The researchers suggest it’s our focus on movement which acts as a distraction from our normal pattern of thinking and therefore stimulates creativity. Whatever the cause, our increased creativity offers up an opportunity to use walking breaks to perform better at work.

#2: Attention and cognition

Walking also appears to have a significant effect on attention and cognition, driven by neurological changes. In fact, one study published in the journal Neurology found that over a nine-year period, participants who walked longer distances preserved more of their gray matter and therefore retained higher levels of cognition. Another found similar results, suggesting walking can increase the number of neuronal connections in the brain.

These observed changes in brain structure and plasticity seem to translate to improved cognition, according to numerous studies. In one study, children with attention deficit disorders, showed substantial improvements in concentration after just 20 minutes walking in a park. (Our trend towards the indoors and the subsequent spike in such disorders is unlikely to be coincidental.)

Other studies have found that walking may improve memory and could have a positive impact on academic performance. Immersion in nature as a whole has also been linked to improved cognitive performance.

#3: Mental wellbeing

Walking also has a profound impact on our state of mind. One study surveyed participants during a 10-week period taking 30-minute lunchtime walks. Those participating in the regular walks highlighted higher enthusiasm and relaxation, as well as reduced nervousness in the workplace.

Other studies have identified aligned findings, with walking proving to be an effective tool (but not a silver bullet) for reducing depression and anxiety.

This psychological impact of walking is one of the most powerful productivity arguments. A happier, healthier worker is more likely to be a productive worker. That much is common sense.

How to Get the Benefits of Walking on a Work Day

Putting this into practice couldn’t be simpler: if physically able, get off your backside and go for a walk.

The way I see it, there are four options for achieving this during a regular work week in the office:

  1. Take a walk in the morning: Set your alarm earlier and take a walk before you go to work. This will, of course, suit the morning larks more than the night owls.
  2. Take a walk in the evening: Get back from work, eat some dinner, and then head out into the night. This one is for the night owls.
  3. Take a walk at lunchtime: To best capitalise on the creative and productivity benefits of the lunchtime walk, plan your most creatively demanding work for after your walk.
  4. Have walking meetings: If all else fails, switch up your meetings. This is unlikely to work for group meetings, but in 1:1 meetings, walking and talking may be a refreshing change (weather permitting).

In Defence of Quality Rest and Leisure

And so we return to my opening point. There is more to the quality leisure and rest so often sacrificed for blind side hustling.

The benefits of these activities often function in tandem with work, serving to enhance and increase our output. Walking is the perfect example, partly because of the ample scientific research that support its cognitive and creative benefits, and partly because it’s an activity which we are turning to less and less.

This is not, of course, to say a side hustle is redundant. In fact, I’m a strong advocate of having one. (This blog, you might argue, is a side hustle – though it currently generates no money at the time of writing.)

But exclusively advocating throwing more time at earning, at the expense of quality leisure and rest, ignores the opportunity costs. It ignores the value of stopping, thinking, recovering and going again for our future earnings. It ignores that there is enormous regenerative power in doing absolutely nothing.

It’s easy to forget the rest and leisure we take for granted as we prioritise rapid wealth accumulation. And it’s all too easy to forget their longer-term benefits for our productivity.

Sleeping is a productivity hack. Meditating is a productivity hack. And yes, putting one foot in front of the other is a productivity hack. Why? Because they are all proven to enable us to perform better when we’re actually working.

In short, stopping work to focus on quality recovery is often the key to thinking better, performing better, and earning better. That, unfortunately, is a point that’s regularly missed.

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